The Denver Broncos have won both games they've played in 2015 and no analysis can take those wins away from them. But if the Broncos want to win consistently the rest of the season (and postseason), they need to decide on an offensive strategy. What QB Peyton Manning and Coach Gary Kubiak have done so far is unsustainable.
After a Week 1 win over the Ravens, pundits and fans were ready to declare Manning washed up. The Broncos managed to pull out the win without scoring an offensive touchdown. Manning posted a weak 59.9 passer rating while completing 24 of 40 for 175 yards. He also threw a critical interception, returned for a touchdown, and was sacked four times (his most since October 2013).
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In Week 2, Manning looked better and led the Broncos on an 80-yard game-tying drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. An unlucky fumble by Jamaal Charles was returned by Denver's defense to win the game. Manning's numbers were obviously stronger: 26 of 45 for 256 yards and 3 TDs.
So what's the problem? On the surface, it looks like Manning had a rough first game but turned it around in the second game. Are the Broncos a resilient team that will find a way to win, even if their star quarterback under-performs? A closer look reveals two important and related problems:
1) There's no running game. According to Football Outsiders, the 2015 Broncos and 1992 Broncos are the only two teams to start 2-0 despite not rushing for more than 70 yards in either game. That 1992 team finished 8-8, which would be disappointing for the best team in the AFC West. The bigger problem with an anemic running attack, however, is the demand it puts on Manning. We can't expect the 39-year-old to throw the ball 650 times this season (he's on pace for it). He may be physically capable of throwing 650 times, but if the Broncos want postseason success, they should keep Manning fresh. A strong running game is the only way to do this.
2) Manning is getting hit. He's already taken seven sacks in two games. The last season Manning went down at least three times in consecutive games was 2012. The reason for this extra abuse is obvious: the offensive line has played poorly. Pro Football Focus shows us that five of the six worst performers on offense are starting linemen. This weakness explains the inability to run the ball as well.
These two offensive flaws make it all the more pressing for Manning and Kubiak to decide on an offensive strategy. This lack of direction is truly why the Broncos' offense is unsustainable. The offense doesn't know what it wants to be. To this point, it has wavered between two approaches.
On the one hand, Manning could line up under center, hand the ball off more, and take fewer hits. This strategy has not worked well in 2015, as the running game and the offensive line have been too bad. On the other hand, Manning could line up in the shotgun, put more stress on his arm, and complete more passes. But this strategy is questionable over the course of a season. Last year, Manning got hurt and nursed the injury through a lackluster playoff performance.
So far, the best results have come with Manning in the gun. Even the Broncos' runs fared better from the shotgun (five rushes for 25 yards against the Chiefs). Kubiak has not given in yet, though. In fact, reports have noted disagreement between Manning and Kubiak on the appropriate offensive strategy. Is there a solution?
There should be a common ground between Manning and Kubiak. Unfortunately, it relies on fixing the two problems noted above—starting with the offensive line. A better offensive line gives the Broncos the best of both worlds. As the running game improves, Manning will make fewer pressured throws when he lines up under center. This extra time means the shotgun won't be a necessary measure to stay in the game; instead, Manning can use it sparingly to give defenses more confusing looks. This game plan will also reduce the number of hits that Manning takes, leaving the veteran quarterback fresher for the playoffs.
If the offensive line does not improve and the running attack continues to struggle, the Broncos will have to rely on Manning to carry the offense entirely—which he probably could do in the regular season. But the wear and tear from this approach will show in the playoffs. Kubiak knows this and has expressed the need for improvement: “We’re trying to help [Peyton]. It’s about us getting better around him, and I promise that he will do his job.’’ Luckily, the Broncos have a 2-0 cushion and a lot of football left to make the necessary adjustments.